Monday, December 18, 2023

A new Anne Frank moment

David Bryfman, the CEO of the Jewish Education Project posted this on the Times of Israel Blogs last Wednesday. I believe his point is very important for Jewish educators and parents. Here are the first two paragraphs. I urge you to read the entire article at

A new Anne Frank moment

Jewish educators must teach our youth to be confident and competent in their Jewish selves and in how they relate to Israel

Behind closed doors, I used to refer to it as the “Anne Frank moment.” This is when a teacher in a public or independent school, usually in an English or Social Studies class, presents “The Diary of Anne Frank” to his or her students. Sometimes, the teacher might have given the parents and students a heads-up. Other times, students are caught off-guard for what may be their first encounter with the Holocaust.

But the “Anne Frank moment” that I mentioned was not the actual teaching of the diary in these schools. It is rather precisely at that moment when the Jewish kids in class, even the ones who have consciously not presented their Jewishness prior to this time, often have an awakening. Whether they wanted to be identified as Jewish is irrelevant; the combination of an internal spark, a presumptuous teacher question, or the sideway glance of an all-knowing classmate make that student feel like — and become known as — the “Jewish kid” in that classroom.

Continue reading at The Times of Israel

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?

Jancee Dunn is a columnist for the New York Times. Last April she wrote a piece in the NYT's Well newsletter called "When Someone You Love Is Upset, Ask This One Question." In it she describes her response to her sister Heather, a teacher who had just completed a challenging week with some agitated students:

“What do you do when a kid is emotionally overwhelmed?” I asked. Many teachers at her school, she told me, ask students a simple question: Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?

The choice gives children a sense of control, which is important when they’re following school rules all day, Heather said. “And all kids handle their emotions differently,” she explained. “Some need a box of tissues, or they want to talk about a problem on the bus, and I’ll just listen.”

First, I urge you to read the rest of the article. She posits (and shares the science) that this is a useful approach for adults as well as kids.

Second, this is an incredibly stressful time for so many of us. Pick your stressor of choice: Israel and Gaza, antisemitism, Congress and the inability to govern and listen, presidential possibilities, the economy, racial strife - there are definitely more than four horses being ridden toward the seeming apocalypse. 

Once thrice in my younger days, as my wife was sharing something that bothered her (at work or somewhere else - not at home) she told me to stop trying and give a solution and JUST LISTEN. I am sure I am not the only person who has thought "I wonder if they tried...." and then shared that nugget, never realizing that the sharing was a form of pressure relief, a search for sympathy or empathy and decidedly an invitation to brainstorm.

I have (mostly) learned my lesson. I had bookmarked Dunn's article and happened upon it today. And I really needed to reread it. I have had a build up of stress, and the article reminded me to think about what I need right now. And it may not be a "solution." 

On Tuesday I shared something my rabbi, Danny Moss, had posted. His words served as both a way to help me and for me to be heard - even though they were not my words. And now I am going home for a hug.

As you wrestle with the issues of your day - whether they are personal issues, existential issues or geopolitical issues - think about what you need. Do you need to be helped, heard or hugged? And once you figure that out get some of it. If I can be the hand, ear or hug that you need, please let me know. I am all in.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

I am on the side of peace.

I work with Rabbi Danny Moss at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT. He posted this on October 14. I can only say Amen.

Elie Wiesel said that remaining neutral always helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. So, I’m picking sides:

  • I am on the side of babies torn from their cribs.
  • I am on the side of children made orphans by terror.
  • I am on the side of all peace-loving people seeking safety for their families.
  • I am on the side of Israelis and Palestinians who reject Hamas and its sub-animalian morality.
  • I am on the side of self determination for two peoples.
  • I am on the side of any genuine Palestinian leader for peace. How can you negotiate with someone committed to your violent annihilation?
  • I am on the side of history, which proves that Israel has endeavored in good faith for peace over and again, across decades; yet this peace was always rejected.
  • I am on the side of Palestinians who have been crushed by the injustices of occupation and blockade — injustices abetted and cynically exploited by their own leadership to curry international sympathy.
  • I am on the side of Palestinians made human shields by their own “leaders.”
  • I am on the side of Israel’s military restraint once it has achieved its security goals.
  • I am on the side of people humble enough to read, learn, and understand this conflict and the people most affected by it before meme-ifying it. I am on the side of the righteous, not the self-righteous.
  • I am on the side of peace.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Grandma Honey's Infallible Latkes

A neighbor texted looking for my once famous latke recipe. It was never mine. It was Grandma Honey's. (Her name was Helen, but none of us knew her by any other name than Honey. If I smell a latke (or if I am an honest, even a French fry will do), I am transported back to her kitchen. About 17 years ago, my son Ethan challenged me to a fry-off. Grandma Honey's latkes are perfect. And they are grated, not shredded. He insisted shredded was better. An aspiring foodie, he used scallions instead of onions and I think a specialty oil. He was declare the winner by my wife and his brother. I never made Grandma's latkes again. And at this point, Trader Joe's product is pretty darn good. I think only my cousin Amy still makes them. To honor the memory of Grandma Honey and to help out my neighbor Debbie, here is the recipe, which I published in the temple bulletin in 2006.

Of course there is a true "Miracle of the Oil!" I experience it every Chanukah. In the beginning the miracle happened at Grandma Honey's house. The whole family met at Grandma and Grandpa's for the Miraculous Latkes. The 10 pounds of white russet potatoes were already peeled and soaking in water in the giant yellow Tupperware bowl by the time we arrived.

It was several years before I was allowed to help grate the potatoes. Grandma was sure that no one could grate them into the fine mush as well as she. We all sat around talking while she rubbed the potatoes against the grater. Then she added the small box of Rokeach Potato Pancake Mix and the salt--just a little bit to taste.

Grandma started laying out brown paper bags—cut open to lie flat, while I took a big serving spoon and used it to spoon off the water that was gathering at the top of the potato mixture. Grandma spooned batter into the hot frying pan, filled with about 1/8th inch of hot Crisco. The potatoes sizzled immediately—giving a sigh of deep contentment. A Re-ach Tov—a Divine smell--filled the kitchen and rose to heaven.

Grandma turned the latkes with a spatula and a fork when they got crisp around the edges, and they sizzled again. Ahhhh!

When each batch was done, it was removed to the brown paper bags. It is a known fact that the bags impart an extra special flavor to the pancakes--paper towel just won't do.

My mom told me that we always had other food at dinner on Chanukah. She said we had either chicken or corned beef as well as salad or cole slaw. When I checked with Uncle Stanley, though, his memory matched mine: Latkes and Apple Sauce for dinner. Period. If there was something else, it was at best a garnish.

There have been several innovations in the family miracle--a true blending of tradition and progress. As Grandma's fingers became less agile, she agreed to my mother's suggestion of using the Cuisinart with the metal blade to liquefy the potatoes in small batches.


10 lbs White Potatoes

1 Box of Potato Pancake Mix for seasoning


2 Eggs

(Some add an onion)

Puree it all and fry in Crisco, cool on brown paper bags

TO FREEZE: Mom also pioneered the art of freezing the leftovers (we sometimes made an additional 10 lbs. in order to have leftovers). She places the pancakes on the paper bags, and puts them into the freezer upon the bags. After they have frozen, she transfers them to Ziploc bags. This keeps them from sticking to each other. TO REHEAT: After defrosting the desired amount of latkes, place them onto a brown paper bag on a cookie sheet. Place the whole assembly into a very hot oven until crisp.

How can we celebrate in the midst of this (or any) tragedy?

We are all looking for ways to cope and ways to help. I have found a few and am looking for more. Focusing on my own emotional and spiritual health, it seems to me I need to start writing again. I hope it invites some of you to engage in conversation - perhaps with me, if not with one another. I wrote this for the Temple Bulletin last week and thought it might make a good start. Chag Urim Sameach!

The library at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has some amazing books and artifacts. On a visit many years ago with a group of educators from the CAJE Conference, librarian David Kraemer passed around a brick of lucite. Inside was a very old document. It was one of several dozen handwritten copies of a letter from, and signed by, Rambam (also known as Maimonides), arguably the greatest authority on Jewish law in history.

The letters were sent to Jewish communities throughout the 12th century Western world, asking Jews to send money which would be used to ransom the Jewish community of Jerusalem. They were being held captive by either the Crusaders or the Saracens – I cannot remember.

Pidyon Sh’vuyim – Redeeming Captives – is, according to the rabbis of the Talmud as well as Rambam, the greatest of mitzvot (commandments). It is even more important than clothing and feeding the poor.

It is outrageous that in our celebrated modernity, redeeming captives is still something that is needed anywhere. We are a week away from the beginning of Chanukah. It should be a time of celebration, lighting candles, spinning dreidels, and overeating things fried in oil like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).

And we will.

It may feel strange to you, as it does to me, to plan a celebration while watching the news feed each day waiting for the next ten hostages to be released. I hope that by the time you read this, those releases are still happening.

The Jewish year continues to happen, no matter what else is going on in the world. Chanukah will begin on the 25th day of the month Kislev (the evening of December 7), like it does every year.

Even in the darkest times of Roman persecution, the Inquisition, and even the Holocaust, our ancestors often found ways to mark the festivals and holy days. And many Israelis are making sure to celebrate important lifecycle moments, if they are able – even with the war going on.

So, I urge you to celebrate Chanukah. Keep the captives and the civilians in your hearts and minds. Even talk about them as you spin the dreidel, or after you sing Ma’oz Tzur, if that works in your home.

There are resources for talking about the situation with children here. Remember that one of the things we celebrate at Chanukah is Jewish autonomy and freedom. Let’s celebrate on behalf of those who cannot.

Let’s gather in prayer and a festive meal on December 8 for Shabbat Chanukah (please make reservations TODAY if you have not yet done so – click this link!). Make donations toMagen David Adom or through the Jewish Federation.

Our joy may be diminished, but Chanukah teaches that we must bring light into times and places that are dark. I hope to see you over the holiday!

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The best use of my time ever
(for professional growth)

I should have posted this sooner. If you listen to me you only have two days to act. I hope you do. Like many of us in Jewish education, I have devoted a lot of time to my own professional development. I have always asked my teachers to attend conferences, online learning and other ways to build their professional tool box. Being a Dugma Ishit (personal example) has always been a core value to me, so I have done a lot of it. In addition to the learning, I love the networking and building relationships with colleagues.

Four members of SEC-4 with four 
Mstaff at the 18 x 18 Summit last week.

I won't list all of the conferences and programs I have attended, planned or even staffed. I will tell you about one though - and I have talked about it before.

In the late spring of 2019, I began a 10 month engagement with M2: the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education's Senior Educators Cohort. I was in Cohort 4 (SEC-4). Cohort 7 is now recruiting and the deadline is this Thursday, June 22. If you are a Jewish Educator do not pass go, do not collect $200 - go directly to the application form!

Sorry. I am a little excited about this program. You see, I have had a great time at a lot of the professional learning programs I have attended over the years. I have a lot of friendships that came out of them and I learned a lot.

SEC-4 was a on a completely different level. I was already doing a lot of learning about Experiential Learning and sharing it with my teachers, because I have believed for several years that it is the secret sauce to connecting the current and coming generations of learners. And IEJE has really created a new academic field for us to understand how to make it work in our different settings. And they have created a lexicon to help us understand it and to transmit it to our teachers an students.

When I finished the first five day seminar, I went up to Kiva Rabinsky, who is the Chief Program Officer and one of our teachers that week, and told him that I had never spent a week of professional learning where so many of my waking hours were spent actually learning. We all got to know one another and develop friendships - we still maintain and actively use our Whatsapp group, and the program ended in March of 2020! AND the learning was intense.

I had intended to complete the program and then begin sharing it with my faculty. After I returned from the first seminar, a few teachers asked me about it and I could stop sharing specifics with them. They insisted that I needed to teach it as quickly as I learned it - it made so much sense to them, I was so passionate about it and they did not want to wait. Thank God I did what they suggested. Because the final seminar ended just hours before the COVID-19 lockdown. It actually was ended two hours early so the Israeli staff and participants could board an earlier flight so they would not have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

Thank God I did what they suggested, spending the fall and early spring teaching my teachers what I learned at SEC-4 and helping them begin to use some of the ideas in their lessons. Because when we made the swing to Zoom on March 15, 2020, they were already thinking about how to make those Zoom classes less frontal and more experiential. I am certain they would have done an excellent job teaching online and later in hybrid mode without the M2 learning. I am convinced that it contributed a lot to how overwhelmingly successful they were in facing all that the pandemic threw at us as teachers. And they were awesome.

So stop reading my ranting. Sign up for SEC-7. You're welcome.

Monday, June 12, 2023

I ran this a year ago. It was originally the final bulletin article at a congregation I had served for 27 years. The past year has been, as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once said, a long strange trip. I am sharing it again, because it is truer than ever. Thank you again Patton Oswalt for your inspiration. And if you want to see a pretty good commencement address, Patton gave it at the College of William and Mary recently. You can see it here.

It was a very tense time in my life. The reason for the stress is not important now. We were waiting to hear some news, but there was nothing more to do to affect the outcome. So, I found a comedy special on Netflix, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s stand-up special “Annihilation.” I think it is still available.

He performed this show a little more than a year after the sudden death of his wife, Michelle. And he talks about both that and the process of talking to their then seven-year-old daughter about it. It is incredibly powerful, moving and strangely very funny.

Oswalt recounted that Michelle was an author of True-Crime books. He said she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”

It's all chaos. Be kind.

Her words and his story got us through that night. And I have shared it with many people.

You don’t need me to tell you about the chaos. Listen to the news. Look at your collection of masks and test kits. Ukraine. Terrorism. Cyber attacks. Politics and posturing from all sides.

What can we do?

When I meet with new teachers I share several principles that are sacred to me. The first is “Camp is for the campers.” In other words, always focus on the experience of our learners, rather than what is convenient for us. Another rule is “Dugma is Dogma.” Dugma Ishit is Hebrew for “personal example.” Always model the behavior you want the learners to emulate. In every moment of my life with you for the past 27 years, I have committed myself to live by the same rules I shared with our teachers. So, what can we do?

Be kind.

Over the years, we have developed our shared vision for education at B’nai Israel – for the children in Kehilah (formerly called Religious School) as well as for learners of all ages. Together we have explored what we want our congregation to learn about, and I have tried to teach how to apply Jewish values and “all of this Jewish stuff” in every aspect of our lives, not just at select moments. I have tried to live and model the sacred principles discussed with the teachers, and the Jewish values we espouse in our new curriculum, articulate as a congregation and hold dear as members of the Jewish people, every day of my life.

Take care of B’nai Israel as it has cared for us all since 1859. And take care of one another.

It’s all chaos out there. All we can do is be kind.



Thursday, June 8, 2023

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Mark Borovitz is a friend, teacher and mentor. His story is amazing. And he has a tremendous blog in which he riffs on a teaching from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he reveres, each day. I try to read them as they post. Yesterday's is a standout and I would like to share it with you. Please go to Rabbi Mark's blog to read more: Living Rabbi Heschel's Wisdom - A Daily Path To Living Well.

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel
June 7, 2023
Year 2 Day 218

Rabbi Mark Borovitz
“What is decisive is not the climax we reach in rare moments, but how the achievements of rare moments affect the climate of the entire life. The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living, dealing with all relations and functions of living. Its main theme is the person rather than an institution.”(God in Search of Man pg. 384)

Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom above says it all, to me. We are a society that is constantly seeking a new ‘high’, fulfilling a new desire, recapturing an old ecstatic experience. We are constantly trying to reach a climax, we are constantly trying to ‘win’, we are constantly moving to the next shiny thing, the next rung up on the ladder, the next ‘big score’, the next, the next, etc. I hear Rabbi Heschel calling to us to let go of this folly, to stop our incessant search for our next climax, our next success.

My Rabbi and friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, teaches that the day after Yom Kippur is the most important day. Rabbi Heschel teaches that “prayer will not save us, it may make us worthy of being saved.” 

Both of these teachings reiterate the teaching above in the first sentence. How does “the climax we reach in rare moments… affect the climate of the entire life of a person”? How has the climax of the Revolutionary War impacted the way we treat freedom? How does the rare moment of our experience at Mount Sinai affect our way of living? How does winning World War II impact our ways of being more human and more humane? How do all of our ‘top of the mountain’ experiences change our ways of living?

In the Bible, after the giving of the 10 Commandments/10 Sayings, we learn about how to treat indentured servants, we learn how to deal with one another in difficult times, how to honor the humanity of one another no matter what ‘station’ in life we are at. 

After the greatest spiritual experience in the Bible (Old Testament to some), we are given paths to living well with one another, we are told of the nature of human beings and how to overcome our nature to treat another poorly, how to get over our self-deceptions and our narcissism! 

We are taught throughout the Bible how to use our daily experiences to better our internal life, to mature our spiritual life, how to live well with one another in peace, in compassion, in truth, in justice, in mercy and in love. Yet, we continue to seek the next ‘high’, not paying attention to the lessons of this experience, not allowing the climax of a good job, a new insight, to grow our inner life, to “affect the climate of the entire life”! 

We are too busy amassing more and more, eventually finding out the truth of life; there is never enough stuff, high, even accomplishments to hide from our selves, to ignore the ways we achieved wherever we have gotten to, our own inner doubts, missing the marks, callousness.

We are witnesses to the dangers and pitfalls of chasing the next big thing, the next climax and not allowing the experience of our climactic experience to change us, to impact our sense of how to live well. We can look throughout our history and see how we have treated ‘those people’, how we have tried to use ‘them’ as enemies and gotten myriads of people to agree, be it Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. 

We have and still do feel great when we ‘win’ and can dominate the minority, when we can win and get the minority to rule as we have seen in Germany with the Nazis, in Russia with Putin, in America with Trump, et al. It seems as if people are only learning how to make bigger and bigger ‘bets’ on how to satisfy their narcissistic desires, their inauthentic need for more authoritarian control. 

I am not talking about just the ‘leaders’, I am speaking of the people supporting them as well. Both the far right and the far left are spewing anti-Semitic tropes and ‘blaming the Jews’ for some troubles, both the far right and the far left are trying to push their agendas as ‘the only right way’ to live. When we are living in the extremes, we find ourselves unable to have a success, a “rare moment of climax” impact “the climate of the entire life” because we are so consumed with keeping our authority, staying in power, we are unable to learn from either success nor failure.

In recovery, we know we cannot afford to live in the extreme anymore, we know from the destruction we have caused and experienced the danger of ‘chasing the next high’. We take “One day at a time”, we go end our day with a look back so we can learn from our actions, the actions of another(s), we can repair our errors, make our amends, learn from our “rare moments of climax”. 

In recovery, we know that our recovery depends on the nature of our spiritual condition and we have to live our spiritual principles in all of our affairs, they are not etherial, they are our lifeline. God Bless and stay safe, Rabbi Mark

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Three thousand years of longing...

An amazing story about the
importance of our stories

I have been a lifelong devotee of story telling. At the old CAJE Conference I could sit for hours and listen to so many amazing story tellers - people like Peninnah Schram, Gerald Fierst and Cherie Karo Schwartz  - to name only a few of the many. When I watch a movie or TV show, I am drawn in by good writing - by the story. Even the best actor can fall short when the writing is not up to their level.

In graduate school, my teacher Isa Aron assigned us Kieren Egen's Teaching as Story Telling. Many of my classmates found it a difficult work - I was spellbound. And when my friend, mentor and then boss Joel Grishaver wanted us to create a Torah text for elementary students, we used Egen's work (and Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook) to guide us. The result was I Can Learn Torah. We were only able to publish the introduction and the first two volumes of what would have been a three volume set. It is still one of my proudest accomplishments in terms of creating curriculum materials. 

It is based on the idea that humans naturally learn through story telling. Sure our experience teaches us most of what we know about our world. Story telling is designed to help us learn to make meaning of our experiences, and those of others. While we often think of the Torah as the source of Jewish law, it is also the primary source of Jewish understanding. It is not for nothing that the first two books are almost entirely narrative!

I attended a session at a CAJE conference (nearly 30 years ago!) taught by the amazing Rafi Zarum. It was called "The Story of Stories." He handed every participant a different edition of the Passover Hagadah. Ron Wolfson once taught me that there were over 3,000 different Haggadot that have been documented.

Now Rafi taught at Mach .8 ~ just under the speed of sound! He told us he was going to walk us through the various parts of the Hagadah and we were to follow along in whatever edition we had, and call out when we found something interesting or different. He also asked us to keep a close watch for the actual text of the Exodus from Egypt as it appears in the Torah.

We learned two things I did not know until that day in Palo Alto.

  1. The actual text of the Exodus from Egypt as it appears in the Torah does not typically appear in a Hagadah.

  2. Each part of the seder is either a teaching tool to help the adults better connect themselves and the children present to the story (which the adults are expected to know well enough to tell) or is the story of another seder in history. 
Cave at Beit Guvrin,
from the same era as
the story at B'nai Brak
My favorite example is of the rabbis in B'nai Brak who are so immersed in the discussion of the Exodus that they miss the sunrise. Why tell us this? Because they lived during the Hadrianic persecutions and still held a seder, even though it could lead to their deaths! They missed the sunrise because they were in a secret cave under a courtyard which admitted no light. 

Our stories are how we know who we are and how we got here.

Last week a new film was posted on Amazon Prime - Three Thousand Years of Longing. Go watch it now. I will wait.

I was amazed. This is a story about storytelling. Tilda Swinton narrates and stars as Alithea Binnie. "Her business was story, She was a narratologist, who sought to find the truths common to all the stories of humankind."

She of course is herself apart from her own story. She encounters Idris Elba, a Djinn who loves stories - both telling them and hearing them. "My Djinn told me, when they come together in the realm of the Djinn - they tell each other stories. Stories are like breath to them. They make meaning.

So too with our stories. They teach us to make meaning.